Within a couple of hours of arriving in Dalsland – Sweden’s ‘Lake District’ – I learned a profound lesson. After a savagely early alarm call, two flights and a two hour drive from Gothenburg, I was hoping for the luxury of a hotel room before heading into the wilderness the following day.
I hadn’t read my itinerary properly.
As a travel writer – even a grandiosely self-titled ‘adventure travel’ writer – I’d come to expect a certain cosseting from my hosts. So arriving at Silverlake outfitting company as the late-afternoon was already beginning to darken, I was surprised – nay, appalled – to learn there was to be no gentle transition into lakeside life.
"Outdoor life is not a different thing to life in Sweden"
Within 30 minutes of our bleary-eyed arrival we’d loaded canoes onto a trailer, hastily changed clothes in the chilly car park, and were being driven to our first put-in from where we – filmmaker Benn Berkeley and I - would paddle to our first camp. The lake was Svärdlång – Long Sword in Swedish – which runs almost due north for 14 kilometres from near the small town of Bengtsfors.
Once the campfire was lit I would realise how unnecessary the imagined hotel was, but during the unexpected hustle of getting out there, I was flustered. I’ve become so used to preparing myself to go outdoors, getting a good nights’ sleep, using a kind of psychological bridge between normal life and outdoor life, that the sudden collapse of that bridge left me daunted.
Here’s the lesson; that bridge doesn’t exist in Sweden. Outdoor life is not a different thing to life. Being outdoors is such an integral part of Swedish culture that perhaps that bridge would seem more like a barrier.
My trepidation was heightened by the fact that this was my first time canoeing. We only had a few hundred yards to paddle into the darkening lake, but almost immediately I realised my canoe was a tool of ancient utility rather than a sporting challenge to be mastered, and as such could be handled by anyone with the slightest sense of balance. I would reach camp without a soaking.
‘Camp’ turned out to be an understatement. In the world of camping, having the most meagre of needs catered for is tantamount to luxury. We landed our canoes and pulled them (unnecessarily far – we were still learning) out of the water. Close by was a substantial pile of well-seasoned firewood. Beyond that a firepit – an old car wheel rim encased in concrete (it was more aesthetic than it sounds). And finally the ‘hut’ we had been promised.
These structures are dotted around the shoreline throughout the whole region, and are free to use for anyone with a Nature Conservation Card (around €13 per person) and all the sites are similarly equipped, including with masses of firewood. However, they cannot be booked, and will often be found to be occupied, so we’d brought a tent in case. But taking this trip in late-September would prove to be a masterstroke of planning and we would only encounter three other humans over the next few days – none of them, crucially, in the campsites.
The huts are simply raised wooden platforms with three walls and a roof – one long side open to the firepit. Ordinarily the lack of one wall could be seen as a shortcoming in a building, but I’d already realised I had no desire to sleep indoors. In recent years I’ve come to prefer a bivvy bag to a tent, and to breathe the fresh night air as it blows over me. With leaden skies above us, this seemed the perfect compromise.
After a little campcraft, a rotisserie chicken from an ill-thought-out supermarket-sweep in Bengtsfors and some fairly extensive repacking to quieten my fussy mind, we were left with nothing to do but admire the scene; the waters of Long Sword gurgling nearby, the fire crackling and the autumn colours of the trees being swallowed by the deepening darkness. If I’d needed a restful evening before embarking upon our paddling, no hotel could have come close.
The morning brought no discernible increase in urgency. Our contact at Silverlake had suggested a route that would take us beyond the 14km of Long Sword, via a short portage, and east to a different rendezvous point, at which he would pick us up. The soporific effect of gentle paddling had us hypnotised quickly, and it took no time at all to abandon that plan in favour of a slow exploration of the paradise we already occupied. We had nothing at all to do, and no reason to go elsewhere to do it. This lake could be our whole world and that would be enough.
Keeping to a straight line became my only concern, mastering the ‘J Stroke’ the extent of my to-do list. (To avoid constantly switching sides with the paddle it is necessary to add a sort of flick to the end of a normal stroke – in effect to describe a ‘J’ in the water.)
Svärdlång was an ideal proving-ground for the new canoeist; narrow enough not to intimidate, long enough to offer a journey, and deserted enough to feel intrepid and self-sufficient. With a grey sky hanging low, the distant length of the lake faded to a misty blur and the colours of autumn were muted, along with the noise of the outside world, which was muffled by the blanket of cloud. We found various inlets en route to nowhere in particular, which provided an explorer’s adventure in the form of variety – a floating carpet of green lily pads, or a thicket of tall reeds with a winding route among them.
Without intending to we covered the majority of the 14km surprisingly quickly and with minimal effort, and found another campsite quite early. It was so picturesque we decided to pitch-up and perhaps take the boats out again before dark. Campcraft had become as important to the trip as the paddling, both have their rhythms and we wanted time with wood and land as much as with water.
I’d camped in Sweden before and noticed that many people take an axe, so packed my Gransfors Bruk small forest axe, a small folding saw and of course a good fixed-blade knife. They proved invaluable – particularly as the boats, rather than our backs, were carrying the load. It’s a sign of Swedish priorities, that the camps are stocked with firewood. But it’s also a sign of how differently the Swedes relate to the outdoors; it’s assumed that campers will have the means to process the 8 foot logs, and without at least one of these tools, we’d have been huddled around a paltry stove.
So the portioning and splitting of wood became part of a soothing routine, and when the rain came – short-lived but heavy – the fire was able to resist it. We were kept entertained by the flora and fauna; spotting frogs and mushroom hunting (the Woolly Milkcap being a stunning highlight), and with very quick dips in the freezing cold water.
The third night was our last, and time had stood still to this point. But it also seemed to stretch back immeasurably. I’d been absorbed by this place so quickly and completely that I was fearful of the wrench of leaving. So I decided to test just how comfortable I was by paddling out to the middle of the lake in the pitch black of night.
The cloud cover was heavy, and there was zero light pollution, so when I laid back in the canoe and switched off my headtorch I was in complete sensory deprivation. With no visible or audible frame of reference the gentle rocking of the boat became imperceptible. But rather than being disorientated, I knew exactly where I was.
There is nothing alien about slow travel and simple living. That psychological transition I was struggling with is an effect of a disconnection from nature, and of seeing the outdoors as a hobby, a weekend activity, something we need different clothes for, and a different mindset. Ditch the prevaricating, the excuses, the separation, and make outside part of life. And if you get the chance, learn to do it in Sweden; it’s what they do best.